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Queens Chronicle

Jamaica Arts Center Removes Exhibit After Public Outcry

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Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2002 12:00 am

Under pressure from elected officials, local residents and the media, the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning hastily took down a controversial art exhibit on Monday evening.

The removal of “Falling,” which referenced events leading up to the collapse of the World Trade Center last September, came just hours after the center’s director said that the piece would remain despite a flurry of public and media attention.

“Falling,” by Israeli artist Sharon Paz, had occupied six windows, two on each of the first three floors of the art center’s landmark neoclassical building, at 161-04 Jamaica Avenue.

From across the street, the small silhouetted images in the piece looked a bit like construction paper cut-outs that typically occupy elementary school windows.

From up close, however, the images of people cascading from the heavens were an obvious—and to some, unseemly—reference to the people who jumped out of the top stories of the World Trade Center last September rather than bear the scorching heat of the flames inside.

Paz’ piece went on display last month with little fanfare, until a local resident called up to express concern, according to the art center’s executive director, Alex Campos.

Unhappy that Campos wouldn’t take it down, the resident contacted the media. The matter quickly snowballed, and last weekend, networks and newspapers large and small converged on the arts center to ask passersby what they thought. Many disapproved.

Then last week, local elected officials like Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and Councilmember Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) entered the fray.

“Clearly we recognize that artists express themselves in different ways, but this is insensitive” Marshall told reporters. “We need healing now, and this opens wounds.”

The artist said that she created “Falling” to emphasize the human side of last year’s attacks. While the media concentrated on images of the World Trade Center under attack, she asserted, the human angle was largely omitted.

Watching last year’s tragedy unfold from her Manhattan apartment, Paz found the images of people falling to be the most disturbing, and she wanted to explore them in creative form to cope and heal.

“I felt the need to explore this moment, to bring out the reality within the memory that this event burns into our mind,” Paz said. “I try to bring the freedom of this horrible moment, where in fact there was no choice for these people.”

In an interview on Monday, Campos acknowledged that “Falling” dealt with a “very difficult subject,” one that the artist felt had not been discussed or addressed. Campos anticipated some public discussion about the piece, adding that it was not the center’s intent “to provoke or come off as insensitive.”

Passersby generally hadn’t noticed the white silhouettes in JCAL’s windows until their attention was directed to them, and some passersby didn’t immediately connect “Falling” to the World Trade Center.

After a moment of contemplation, one Jamaica resident, who asked not to be named, concluded: “That’s not right. They should take it down.”

Despite similar calls for its removal, Campos said on Monday that the piece would not be taken down before the scheduled date of Saturday, October 5th.

By the evening, however, “Falling” was removed. A spokesperson for the center cited “safety concerns,” but declined to elaborate. Campos was unable to be reached by telephone.

The artist was surprised by the move. “This is very disappointing,” Paz said on Tuesday. “It feels a little absurd, because this non-violent piece has suddenly got an implication of violence. Suddenly, it’s a safety issue to create an art piece.”

But some in the local community approved of the center’s decision. “It wasn’t the proper place. It was in the front window of a building where any person walking down the street could have seen it,” Councilman Comrie said.

He would have preferred to relocate the piece to an interior exhibition space where “there could have been an explanation or a sign for someone to read so they could understand.”

“Falling” now moves to an exhibit space in Manhattan, where it will be included in a show about the World Trade Center.

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning has scheduled a public forum on art as it relates to last year’s attacks on Tuesday, October 1st at 7 p.m. in conjunction with ArtistCare. The forum will take place at the center, at 161-04 Jamaica Avenue.

For more information, contact Harlan Chaney, JCAL’s marketing director, at 658-7400 ext. 22.

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